Morrill Hall Reminiscences

19 03 2013
Morrill Hall, circa 1913

Morrill Hall, circa 1913

The Department of Nursing was established at Michigan State College in 1950.  The program was an immediate success.  In 1954 the first 10 graduates earned the highest scores on the State Board of Nursing Exams in Michigan.  During its first decade of existence, classes were held in Giltner Hall, which was home to the College of Veterinary Medicine.  Conditions were not ideal as there was no available space to hold demonstration classes and a large number of sick and dying animals were housed in Giltner, a problem exacerbated by the lack of ventilation.  It was decided in 1961 to move Nursing to Morrill Hall. The following excerpt is from the book Nursing at Michigan State University, written by Dr. Isabelle Payne, Dean Emeritus of the School of Nursing:

After many conferences with the staff in the Office of Space Utilization, the program was moved to the basement of Morrill Hall in 1961.  It wasn’t the best solution, but the faculty were all on one floor and several offices were available for single occupancy.  There were adequate classrooms and space for laboratory demonstrations and practice.  Morrill Hall had originally been a dormitory, and when one prospective student came for a pre-admission interview, she remarked, “My grandmother told me that she lived in this building when she was a student at Michigan State College.”

Although the animal noises and odors were no longer a problem, the faculty was now challenged by bats.  Because Morrill Hall was constructed for use as a dormitory, fireplaces were located in each room for heat.  When the building was remodeled for office and classroom use, the chimney shafts were not closed.  Occasionally, a bloodcurdling scream was heard and one could be sure that a faculty member had encountered a bat.  Students were amused when a bat approached a faculty member.  If a student was attacked, however, it was a different story.  Regardless of the bat’s prey, the screaming, the running to escape, and the general confusion were the same.

Morrill Hall had limited storage space, and, just as when one moves from one house to another, excess accumulation of “stuff” needed to be sorted and disposed of.  The faculty was so spread out in Giltner Hall that it was difficult to consolidate and sort the equipment before the move took place.  This did not seem to bother most of the faculty, but Helen Penhale and Isabelle Payne decided to take matters into their own hands.  They returned to Morrill Hall one evening to sort and dispose of materials that could no longer be used as teaching aides.  One of the dilapidated articles they came upon was an old Chase doll (almost everyone remembers Mary Chase).   After weighing the pros and cons of the situation, they decided to dispose of the mannequin by placing it

Mrs. Mary Chase, source of the misunderstanding. Chase dolls were used to train health care workers.

Mrs. Mary Chase, source of the misunderstanding. Chase dolls were used to train health care workers.

in the trash disposal bin outside the building.  They carried the mannequin out with no difficulty, but because its joints were not functioning properly, it was hard to manage the legs and arms; it took some creative maneuvering to cram all four extremities into the bin.

Apparently, someone driving by saw the women stuffing a “body” into the trash receptacle and contacted the police to investigate.  Before the task of disposing of the “body” was complete, several police cars with lights flashing and sirens screaming came into the parking area between Morrill Hall and Olin Health Center.  By then, the two culprits realized what was happening and were literally consumed with laughter.  They had great difficulty explaining the situation to the policemen, who in turn were doubled over with laughter.  By then a crowd had gathered and it took some time to explain that no one had been murdered and an attempt was not being made to dispose of a “body.”

The police dispersed the crowd and laughingly suggested that when another “object” or “body” was to be disposed of Physical Plant personnel be asked to assist.  Fortunately, neither The State News nor late night TV scooped the story.

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Works Cited

Payne, Isabelle. Nursing at Michigan State University. East Lansing: University Printing, 1994.





Women’s History Month – Morrill Hall

1 03 2011

March is Women’s History Month. Throughout the month we will celebrate aspects of the history of Women at MSU.

It was the fall of 1896 and Michigan Agricultural State College began something new, a Women’s Program. The MSC catalogue from 1899-1900 stated that “In this course there is a broader range of studies than in the agricultural course, but the central thought is still the capability of taking firm hold of life on the side of its material tasks. It is an effort to apply science to the work of the household, to simplify and systematize its duties and dignify its labors.” Seventeen young ladies moved into the old Abbot Hall (where the current music building is located) and were to begin their studies of home economics. Within four years, enrollment in the Women’s Program grew exponentially with numbers reaching 60 female students; the college needed a new space.

Morrill Hall was built.


The photograph shows the statue of Diana and her fawn inside Morrill Hall. The back reads, “Woman’s Building Entrance Hall-1917. Statue of Diana and her fawn, bought by the college because the State Board wanted some good art in Bldg.” The statue stood where the elevator, built summer of 1914, is currently. The dining room was on the third floor and an elevator was demanded.

$95,000 was the final cost of this beautiful red brick building. It was a palace to the residents at the time. Called “The Coop” by the male students, this four-story structure provided everything necessary for the comfort and health of the young women. Each room came fully furnished with a bedstead, mattress, dresser, wash-stand, two chairs, washbowl and pitcher, and a closet and would cost about ten to twelve dollars a term. The building itself contained a kitchen laboratory, small dining-room for classes in cooking, parlors on the second floor, large dining room on the third floor, a two-story gymnasium on the ground and first floors, music rooms, waiting a reception rooms, toilet and bath rooms, laundry rooms, and living rooms. The hall was adorned with paintings, aesthetically pleasing furniture and décor, and artificial plants. The Women’s Building was in close proximity to the post office, library, and other college buildings. It faced a pleasant stretch of thick green lawn containing beautiful trees and shrubbery. There was even a small artificial pond nearby with a rustic bridge connecting to a small island in which the girls could go enjoy the landscape.

The building not only was able to house the 120 female residents, but also the Dean, the head of the home economics department, her assistants, and the physical education instructor. These faculty members would sleep in rooms adjoining the fire escapes to prevent late night loiters from entering through the unlatched windows to hang out with their friends. The Women’s Building had “absolute quiet” hours from seven to ten o’clock pm. Lights went out at ten o’clock, and only two eleven o’clock parties were allowed a term.

One student recalls that dinner was always an event: “And what a scramble to get to dinner. There was no elevator in the building and we climbed the stairs to the third floor three times a day besides taking our turn at a table waiting.” Life in the Women’s Building was quiet enjoyable for the residents living there at the time.

The photograph shows the Domestic Science Laboratory in Morrill Hall. Windows seem to face East overlooking newly cleared land and the “Lagoon.” The back reads, “Domestic Science Laboratory. (1908?) see window (illegible).”

In 1937, major changes took place to the building. Enrollment in the Women’s Program continued to increase and (the new) Sarah L. Williams Hall was built to house more students. With the new West Circle buildings being built to serve as housing for women, it was decided that $83,000 was to be spent on the Women’s Building to convert it into classrooms and offices for the Liberal Arts Division. Offices included the Dean of Liberal Arts division; departments of economics, education, English, geology and geography, history, mathematics, sociology and zoology, and large classrooms were also a part of the new building. This was also when its name changed to Morrill Hall, named after Justin Morrill, a Vermont senator who sponsored the Land-Grant Act in 1862 which gave states the money to establish agricultural and mechanical arts colleges. This act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. The building would undergo one more renovation in 1956 where they expanded certain parts of the structure.

Now, 111 years after its initial opening, the building is plagued with

The photograph shows the gymnasium in the basement of Morrill Hall, circa 1908.

cockroaches in the floorboards, bats in the ceiling, leakage problems, tilted ceilings and floors, and even ghosts according to some professors. It still serves as office space for faculty of the English, History, and Religious Studies programs. The professors have to be careful where they place their books in their high ceiling offices in fear of the floor collapsing. The age of Morrill Hall first showed up in February 1991 when a 12 ft by 40 ft portion of the basement ceiling collapsed. Since then, the buildings wooden structure has been deteriorating causing the building to be an enormous safety hazard. It was decided in 2008 that the building would have to be demolished. March 2013 will mark Morrill Hall’s last days. There is a plan to spend $36 million to both demolish the building and either build a new Morrill Hall or renovate and rename an existing building.

It is sad to see such a historical building go, but until then, let it stand as a reminder as the first Women’s dormitory and the pioneer Women’s Program.

For more information regarding the history of Home Economics Courses at MSU, visit the University Archives and Historical Collections’ online exhibit here.